By Mark McCartney
You might be giving more attention to your body than your mind. So, why not make 2014 the year you focus on how well your mind focusses and how this translates into optimal productivity?
The gift of attention
Without perhaps even being fully aware, you are giving me the most precious gift you have: full attention. This underrated resource is now generating considerable interest as leaders become increasingly overwhelmed and recognize the speciousness of quick-fix time management ‘tools’ and ‘techniques’.
A rare resource in the 21st century
To illustrate the magnitude of what I call an ‘Attentional Crisis’ simply look around and observe. When you’re in a meeting monitor your own attention and the ‘triggers’ which cause it to wander. How attentive are others in the meeting?
A well-known Harvard Business School experiment among 25,000 smartphone users asked a simple question: What are you thinking about now? 49% of employees were thinking about something different to the task they were currently working on. Almost half of the workforce are doing one thing but thinking about something else! This and other experiments are explored in Daniel Goleman’s excellent new book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” He says about attention that, “… the game has changed so much that we have to get conscious and intentional about something we took for granted.”
Attention is a muscle that needs to be ‘worked’
So how can you start to exercise your ‘attentional’ muscles? Let’s run a quick experiment first. How many times has your attention wondered since starting this article? Such close observation of your habits will shed more light on your time management challenges than reading about and attending time management courses.
Here are three simple ways you can ‘work’ your ‘attentional’ muscle in 2014 and, by so doing, dramatically improve your wellbeing and productivity.
One: Write these three questions on paper and tape them to your desk, phone or laptop
Why am I doing this now? How conscious am I of my habits and what they mean for my ability to give 100% attention? How can I redesign my day so that I make better use of my attentional capacity?
The reason conventional time management approaches don’t work is: the point at which you need them most is the point at which you are most likely on autopilot. For instance, occasionally I find myself typing in an internet address, like LinkedIn, that I have not consciously decided to search for. At the point of decision the ‘Urgent-Important’ matrix (a widely known Time Management technique) is of little use to me.
The purpose of these questions is to increase our capability to work consciously so that we can make better choices rather than work in a habitual way.
Two: create a ‘pausing’ ritual
Rather like the previous suggestion, this one is designed to keep you conscious in terms of what you are doing and why. This is particularly effective for ‘busy’ people who enjoy working on lots of tasks, often simultaneously.
It is a mindfulness technique which benefits you by providing a short break between tasks. There is increasing evidence that breaks are highly conducive to the kind of work that is highly valued; creative thinking, for instance. Mindfulness can also help to reduce highly ineffective multi-tasking. There is mounting evidence from neuroscience that doing two tasks at once is really your brain toggling between two different attention levels; a huge waste of cognitive capability.
I simply take three breaths between tasks. This simple breathing technique helps to increase oxygen to the brain. It also helps connect you with your body.
Three: Quiet time doing nothing
Sitting in a room with no phone or computer and no To-Do list can be one of the most effective activities, and yet so few people do it even though they recognize the benefits. One simple tactic is to diarize it and turn it into a habit which despite the ‘pull’ of being busy you will protect.
When considering this it might be worth thinking about the real challenge in the workplace now – how to do less but better work in a world which fights hard for our attention.
There is an Italian name for this type of activity – Ottzio: purposefully doing nothing. After all, it is in fact very easy to be very busy doing inconsequential work.
Finally, exercising your actual muscles is of course a highly productive activity which will provide huge benefits to your work life!
About the Author
Mark is an Executive Coach at Säid Business School; Cranfield School of Management; and Universität St Gallen, Executive School (ES-HSG).
He is a European expert in the emerging area of Productivity in our Digital Age.
He meditates twice a day and runs workshops for individuals, teams and organisations to enable them to increase their productivity but not their work hours.
You can reach Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.